A consequence of the UAE’s ambitious space programme is that a new crop of graduates are looking to the sky — rather than below the earth — to extract precious resources.
This is true for Emirati entrepreneur Dr Ali Al Hammadi, co-founder of Farmin, a new Abu Dhabi technology company that aims to use satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to monitor crops. The goal of this high-tech surveillance is to help farmers optimise their yields while minimising costs and the impact to the environment.
Agricultural activities contribute nearly a third of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to a joint report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is in part due to the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. As food production grows to feed a rising population, emissions are on an upward trajectory unless farmers can figure out how to be drastically more efficient with their use of chemical fertilisers.
Partly in response to this grim reality, the global market for farm management software is anticipated to reach $4.2 billion (Dh15.4bn) by 2025, expanding an average of 17 per cent annually over the next six years, according to Indian firm Grand View Research.
If Dr Al Hammadi is successful, his company can help farms reduce rising greenhouse gas emissions and put the UAE on the map for emerging agriculture technology amid boom times for the industry.
Growing up, he watched his parents farm Rhodes grass, tomatoes and lettuce in the harsh UAE landscape. Then, while pursuing his PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Rice University in Houston, Texas, he was captivated by the vast farms of the American south.
His motivation to launch Farmin came directly from "the inefficiencies and lost resources that I observed in UAE farming compared to the US", he says.
"A quick comparison indicates that UAE produces lower yield while consuming more resources. I wanted to use my PhD knowledge in artificial intelligence to extract data from satellite imagery to help farmers better monitor their farms and respond to low yields."
Dr Al Hammadi, whose day job is as an assistant professor at Khalifa University, where he teaches chemical engineering and thermodynamics, caught a break to commit more time to his idea when he applied to an entrepreneurship programme sponsored by the UAE Space Agency and Krypto Labs in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, a private incubator for new start-ups. His concept to use satellite images to improve farming was chosen among 80 applicants to be one of two ventures to participate.
The GeoTech Innovation Programme furnished the fledgling company with Dh500,000 in in-kind support — offering office space, mentorship and networking with the end goal of transforming the Farmin concept into a commercially viable product.
"Farmin is a prime example of contributing to the knowledge-based economy" being fostered in the UAE, says Anas Zeineddine, the executive director of Krypto Labs, who saw first-hand the inexperienced start-up founder go from turning his bright idea into a robust proof of concept over the summer this year.
Within five months, Dr Al Hammadi had a website and glossy marketing materials. But more importantly, he had two years worth of archival satellite images of a swath of Omani farms — the equivalent of millions of photos — to train his AI programme. Each pixel of a satellite image of farmland represents about three square metres. Combining the observations in every pixel with drone monitoring and soil testing, all of that data is then sorted by artificial intelligence to generate a report for the farmer to use. The report spits out yield data as well as recommendations to combat disease or adjust fertiliser levels, improve water efficiencies and forecast what that season's soil will produce. AI can also help predict potential problems.
"I want farmers to be strategic instead of reactive," Dr Al Hammadi says.
The first cache of images he received for the farm in Oman were bought from US satellite imagery firm Digital Globe, but it was too expensive for Farmin to maintain a subscription. He is in a bind since he needs satellite data to train the AI, but without the data he cannot land paying customers.
So his next hurdle is finding a large partner to buy the satellite images he needs to bring his product to the UAE market. Ideally, he says Farmin would build a programme that monitors all of the UAE's farmland so that crops are being grown as efficiently as possible on a national scale.
Pockets deep enough to fund such an ambition do exist. Two years ago, DuPont, the American biotech and materials science giant, acquired AgTech start-up Granular for $300 million, a company that is doing something similar to Farmin but is focused mainly on US farms.
When Granular started out, it was funded by leading venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures.
As Dr Al Hammadi has already discovered, the sky is not the limit.
Q&A with Farmin founder Dr Ali Al Hammadi
Who is your role model?
“The word impossible is not in the leaders’ dictionaries. No matter how big the challenges, strong faith, determination and resolve will overcome them,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum once said.
I have always been inspired by the aspiring visions of our leaders. These visions shaped our life and impacted the continuous growth of UAE.
One thing that you would change if you were to start Farmin again?
I would build the minimum viable product (MVP) and reach out to farmers sooner to better capture issues of most concern and tailor Farmin to their needs.
How important has where you started Farmin been to the success of your venture?
I had the chance to start Farmin with the support of the UAE Space Agency and Krypto Labs, a global innovation hub located in Masdar City, which is at the heart of UAE’s innovation. The UAE Space Agency and Krypto Labs teams greatly influenced the progress of Farmin as they guided me through many pivots. In addition, Farmin was developed in response to issues faced by the UAE agricultural sector which is applicable through all of Mena.
Where do you imagine Farmin five years from now?
I envision that Farmin will be able to serve millions of farm acres across many Mena countries. It will serve as an efficient tool to cut agricultural cost and waste.
I believe it will provide regional farmers with the necessary data to maximise their yield and allow more efficient management of farms and resources. Moreover, it will enable supervising ministries to continuously monitor the usage of resources and farm outputs, thus increasing food security.